The Pain of Public Charging

Ecotricity Motorway Service Station Fast Charger (Image: Ecotricity)
Ecotricity Motorway Service Station Fast Charger (Image: Ecotricity)

I have been closely following the development of electric cars for about 18 months and over that time have come to know and sympathise with many of the grievances felt by electric car owners. As the delivery day for my ZOE approaches, however, (it should be Tuesday this week) these issues are fast coming into focus as I will have to tackle them personally very soon.

Many of these issues revolve around the use of public charging points, including:

  1. Charging points are very often not well located, so there isn’t one where you need it.
  2. Use of a charging point may require a dedicated access card and/or payment.
  3. Access to the charging point may be restricted, for example many are on car dealers’ premises and are restricted to the dealers’ customers and/or to the dealers’ opening times.
  4. Finding charging points is difficult as there are multiple, conflicting charge point maps.
  5. The parking place intended to be used for charging may be blocked by a combustion car.
  6. Charging points use a multiplicity of different connectors. There are at least 5 different connectors used for electric cars, and at least 3 can be found on UK charging points (the Type 2 Mennekes used on the ZOE for slow and fast charging, the CHADEMO used on the Nissan LEAF for fast charging, as well as the standard 13 Amp socket).

It is the first three points that I want to touch on here – they are closely related. The other three issues are significant in their own right and I will cover each of them in future posts.

The first issue, that of charging point location, is a broad one. Until charging points are ubiquitous it is inevitable that there won’t always be one where you need it. Unfortunately, in the UK at least, this situation is made worse than it need be.

Firstly, many charge points are equivalent to a standard domestic electrical supply – in other words, a 13 Amp socket on a post. These are nearly useless in the public arena. At home it’s fine to leave your car overnight to charge but there are few times you want to leave your car unattended in a public place for 6-12 hours and certainly not during a long distance trip.

Secondly, deployment around the UK is very patchy. Some towns and cities (London, Oxford, and Manchester, for example) have had schemes that have installed large numbers of charge points within a designated area. At the same time other areas have none at all. For example, I work in Milton Keynes and it has 28 ZOE-compatible charging points (on the Open Charge Map). I live in Northampton, about half an hour’s drive further north, and it has none.

Thirdly, even those regions that have many charge points often have them in the wrong place. This is a point well made by Ecotricity with its Electric Highway of charge points along the major motorways:

“We chose the motorway network for good reason. The big focus so far – with charging facilities – has been town and city centres. But we think they’re needed the least here. You only need to look at car use statistics for the answer. The average car in Britain travels around 20 miles a day, a distance most modern electric cars can sustain for almost a week without needing to charge.

“Most car owners have access to off-street parking (70 per cent apparently) and are able to charge at home, at night. So most cars don’t need to charge, most days. It’s longer journeys where charging is most needed.”

The second issue is one that I’m currently fighting with. I need to do some long distance driving soon after picking up my new ZOE. However, there is no quick and easy way to get an access card that allows you to use a public charging point. No, you can’t just go into a shop or Post Office and buy one.

Not only that, but there are multiple access card schemes so that you may need to be a member of multiple schemes if you want to travel across the country. This situation is improving, however, as the schemes start to co-operate and grant access to each other’s members.

This is my experience so far:

  • Last Wednesday I applied online for an Ecotricity Electric Highway card. It starts free, but they reserve the right to charge £10 per year in future if you’re not an Ecotricity customer. The online application form requires a vehicle registration number (VRN) – which I didn’t know then – so I used my ZOE’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). I don’t know if that’s going to cause problems. Anyway, it takes up to 14 days to receive the card which is rather slow.
  • Also on Wednesday I applied for a Plugged-In Midlands card. Membership is £20, but it is not clear if this is in perpetuity or not. Again, I used the VIN instead of the registration number. The card is supposed to be sent within 5 working days.
  • On Saturday I applied for a Source London card, so I can visit the capital. Membership is £10 and is only guaranteed to be valid until 30 June 2014 when the scheme management is being transferred to a new operator. By this time I had been given my ZOE’s VRN so was able to use that. Again posting out the card takes up to 5 working days. The difference with this scheme is that, unlike the other two, the membership is definitely for the person, not the car, so having registered you can then add multiple electric cars to your account (a forward thinking view that I appreciate).

It’s looking pretty unlikely that I’ll get a charge point access card in time for my first long distance trip (though, having spoken to Ecotricity and their supplier, ChargePoint Services, it’s possible they can expedite me one in time). To be fair to these schemes, though, they do allow you to apply online and get a card within a reasonable amount of time (even if it’s not quickly enough for particular trips I’m planning).

Much worse is the London Congestion Charging scheme which I assumed would be similar but no, that would be too much to expect. It’s hard to believe but to apply for an electric car discount on the Congestion Charge you need to download a form, print it off, add a photocopy of your vehicle registration document, and a cheque for £10, and put it all in an envelope to send to the scheme address, then allow 10 days just for the document to be processed, then wait for an approval letter to be sent to you. Yes, really – in 2013! And in the meantime you must pay the charge in full. You can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, this brings me on to the third issue. Since I can’t rely on having access to fully-public charging points for imminent trips I have been looking at using car dealerships as charging stations. Renault, Nissan and Toyota dealerships, for example, have charging points if they are accredited for electric car sales.

However, dealerships naturally tend to allow their charge points to only be used by their own customers, so I am limited to Renault premises (and only those that have EV facilities). More of an issue, though, is that being commercial premises there is generally only access during opening hours. While that is a general nuisance, it can be more limiting than it seems at first glance. What can actually happen – and this is likely to be the case for my first trip – is that you can have access for charging on your way to a destination. But then on the way back the same facility is unavailable because you are returning in the evening when the premises have closed.

My overall conclusion so far, therefore, is that public charge points are a pain. In fact I’m rapidly coming to a definitive but inescapable conclusion:

The various public bodies, committees and organisations that have defined, deployed and organised the UK public charge point network are staffed exclusively by people that have never owned an electric car.

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This topic contains 20 replies, has 10 voices, and was last updated by  mervync13 4 years, 6 months ago.

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    Trevor Larkum

    I have been closely following the development of electric cars for about 18 months and over that time have come to know and sympathise with many of th
    [See the full post at: The Pain of Public Charging]



    The real pain is that it is (at least in Germany) not illegal for a combustion car to block the charge station.

    In Stuttgart there is Car2Go, a public rental system based on Smart ED. I sometimes use this for a particular route from one train station to another. On the second train station there is a charging point where one of the parking spaces is blocked by the same combustion car whenever I arrive there.
    I asked the people from the rental system and they have no legal way to stop this. 🙁




    Don’t forget that Nissan and Renault are essentially the same company (although you wouldn’t think Renault listened to Nissan concerning communication and chargepoint (tomtom) POI databases). In Holland the Nissan fast chargers (which I believe are not behind a gate, unlike the current 11 kW chargers Renault dealers have to get) are currently getting an AC connection to also allow the Zoe to charge there. So you can include Nissan dealers, as long as they don’t just have CHAdeMo chargers.

    I have found one public fast charger now that already includes a 44 kW AC Mennekes plug and have used it succesfully. Generally all charge cards in Holland are (or should soon) be accepted at every public charge port (and I know they are working on European compatibility as well at least in the countries surrounding NL). I have an Essent card which is free and has the best rates as well. Soon it will be possible to choose your own electricity provider for the charge points, so there is progress.

    But indeed it seems we are still early adapters and Zoe owners more than Leaf owners because we cannot use the DC fast chargers (over 100 around Holland). A lot will get AC Mennekes cables soon at least, a simple small update.

    I have tried a couple of public chargers around Holland now and have had two with errors. One had to ports that went red when tried to charge. The telephone support tried but couldn’t reach it remotely to reset, so I had to change restaurants to another place that did have a working charger nearby. The other was a semi quick 22 kW outlet attached to a DC fast chargers at a hotel. Initial charging was okay and pretty quick, but as I came back from a toilet visit (I only needed 20 minutes) the charger had gone red and stopped (but got a few minutes of charge at least). I called the support number (middle of the night), but after listening to the waiting music to be connected to an operator for 5 minutes or so I gave up on that and went homeward with just a bit more km in the battery than needed according to Tomtom. Over the journey the battery mileage slowly got less compared to the nav km’s, so I had to drive slower (80 where 100 was allowed) to increase it again. I did know of a few 11 kW chargers enroute just in case, which also showed that they were available, so it was cool to see how far I could get. The miles stayed identical, but I adjusted the route to include more miles through town (instead of freeway) which I know would instantly give me more miles because of the much better economy then, which it did.

    At 15 km their is a warning light and the miles go red, below 10 or so it starts blinking, below 6 km dashes showed and I got an automatic SMS (which I set in my ZE app) to warn me the Zoe was getting low on charge. At home it looked like this:


    After plugging in, the display indicated a calculated charge time of a bit more than 8 hours.

    So depending where I go, charging is challenging and often still not reliable. On top of that you have to know which smartphone apps have the best chargepoints database, because they tend to differ. If you just use the Tomtom database, you are screwed. At least you think you are, since the database is very outdated and hardly shows any chargepoints. It also doesn’t show what type it is. I believe Nissan uses chargemap, which can be updated by users. The most official chargepoint map in Holland is also downloadable as a POI set for Tomtom, except that according to Tomtom (I asked) it is Renault that’s directly responsible for updating the Tomtom via R-link. I know Nissan also actively has user fora of their own in countries to actively listen to users, Renault doesn’t as far as I know.

    I love the car, but the infrastructure is still struggling (although I realize it’s much, much better than in other countries already) and Renault doesn’t make it any easier. And that won’t help with the electric revolution.



    Umbi, here in Holland there is law already for it (a friend of mine is a cop). If there is a sign indicating that it is a parking spot for electric cars / charging, then only cars that are plugged in are allowed to park (often a 30 minute limit is given with fast chargers). So even a Leaf not plugged in, is not allowed to park there and will be flatbedded / fined.

    You could leave a note with the ICE owner, or perhaps block his spot and drape the cable over his car if you want to go about it aggressively :).

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 7 months ago by  Nosig.


    One little positive note to add to ‘Point 5’. Our local ASDA Superstore have now started blocking the 4 EV charging bays at the front of the store with traffic cones. We asked at the customer service desk to see what it was blocked for. They said its because of people complaining that the spaces were always blocked by ICE vehicles. They have told us to simply remove the cone when we wish to use the bay for charging and return the cone afterwards. In an even better note, they informed us that a penalty notice sign will be installed very soon too. This will mean anyone parking in an EV bay and is either not charging or is an ICE vehicle will get a £75 fine slapped on the windscreen! (the same treatment as parking in a disabled bay without a blue badge) I do not know if this is a nationwide thing that ASDA stores are doing or if its just our store. I applaud ASDA for this very bold and positive move! (p.s. We have a nice little pic of the coned off bays if anyone is interested? lol)



    I took the slightly easier option of applying for a SourceEast card – that gives access to SourceEast, Plugged-In Midlands and SourceLondon. The application form asks for a car reg, but you can just put anything in there – I spoke to them and they were fine with that, they understood that applying for a card before you have the car is a sensible thing to do. The card arrived in about three days.

    I’ve also applied for the Polar card; slightly confusingly there are a number of ways of applying for it on different sites, and they usually refer to getting a home charging station as well – again, I’ve spoken to them and they acknowledge that it’s not very clear that you can just get the card without the home charging unit. As with SourceEast, a vehicle reg is not actually necessary. This was applied for on Friday, let’s see when it arrives.

    Regarding ICEs parking in bays, I think the main problem with this is going to be on private car parks (shopping centres etc) where there is no legal enforcement. There’s a SourceEast point with two bays in our main village car park – this is enforced by traffic wardens, and has a four-hour limit with no return within four hours (so commuters won’t be able to park there). I’ve never seen an ICE parked there; mind you, I’ve never seen an EV there either… But in a shopping centre or other car park, they tend not to worry – I often see ICEs parked in EV bays, just as disabled and family spaces are regularly occupied by people who are neither.

    Still, it’s early days, and at least it’s a good sign that there are as many charging points available as there are – I have a colleague who is giving up an LPG vehicle partly due to the fact that finding an LPG forecourt still isn’t easy!



    Ahead of getting my Zoe, I’ve been thinking about whether it’s possible to get from my place (near Milton Keynes) to my wife’s family in Weymouth, I sat down last night with the Charge Map app on the iPad to determine whether any suitable route, with chargers, presented itself.

    I was quite surprised to see how few charging points existed in the Weymouth/Portland area, the map was completely devoid of charging points for miles around. Having then checked the online version of the map, there is one point located in Weymouth at the park & ride.

    No matter, as I could always try and persuade the In-Laws to install a free charging point under the current offer (open to March next year). But whether looking to drive the shortest route (via Salisbury) or the quicker route (A34/A31) there are no fast chargers on the map that would make the journey possible – most of the chargers listed are in hotel car parks or other private property, not at convenient locations such as service stations.

    Similar story when I look at the routes from my place to my folks in Ledbury. It’s so frustrating – initially the map looks covered in charging points, but in practice they are rarely in practical locations with suitable power output.

    Keeping the accuracy of the charging points up-to-date must be difficult and require the committed input of those installing the points, on the basis that Open Charge Map are not omnipresent. For example, I know that the Little Chef in Bicester has a charge point outside, but it’s not on the map – one of many examples, I’m sure.

    In the short term, it would be great if every Renault/Nissan dealer had (at least) a couple of fast-charging points available 24×7, which would cover most towns/cities and create a wide reaching network of compatible chargers. Longer-term, I love what Ecotricity are trying to achieve (a la Tesla, maybe), but the roll-out is s-l-o-w. I, for one, would be happy to pay a modest Ecotricity membership fee if it resulted in a faster roll-out of fast-charging points.

    Having said all that, I see my folks about once a month and my wife’s folks less than that, so I’m wanting a network of fast-chargers for journeys I don’t do that often – unreasonable, maybe, but I still want it!

    So many opportunities to quickly add charging points, e.g. cover petrol station canopies in solar panels and install charging points. After all, much of their profit comes from items sold in the shop, and earnings per KWh must be worthwhile (although I suspect there must be 1,000,001 reasons why you can’t have high-voltage on a petrol station forecourt).

    Perhaps we should start up a business that helps convert petrol stations to solar-powered fast-charging stations!



    Nosig: I’m afraid those guys destroy the cable…they simply don’t care.

    Maybe we have to start something in Germany here..politicians always talk about empowering e-mobility…here’s one point to start with.




    Most pain in the ass in Germany is to find Charging stations that are working. I had a lot of problems on my Holiday drives, as you can find in my Blog: (german)

    So please plan your Tours with enough SOC to reach other Charging points!



    @markd I’ve actually been waiting to get a registration number so I can register with the Electric Vehicle Drivers’ Association. If they don’t have a centralised lobbying strategy, I’m considering organising one.

    I’d like to have a means by which one body can represent the interests of EV owners to lobby various businesses/organisations to install fast chargers. Whether this is just by letter, by ‘registers of interest’ (think petitions but somewhat less forceful!) or by some kind of crowdfunding model depends on how organisations react.

    For instance my local Sainsbury’s doesn’t have a charge point, but the next town’s one does. So Sainsbury’s as an organisation is clearly open to the idea, and so it will hopefully be a matter of having enough EV owners send enough letters. If it’s no/low-cost to them, then it’s a net gain overall – increased loyalty from a handful of EV owners, and good eco-friendly PR which is probably the most valuable part.

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 7 months ago by  Deejay.
    • This reply was modified 4 years, 7 months ago by  Deejay.
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